> The Hull Reform Synagogue - Ne've Shalom
The Hull Reform Synagogue - Ne've Shalom




The following feature has been sent in by Jackie Lukes following her recent holiday in France.


Exploring the city of Tours on a hot Saturday in July, finding myself in the poorest tumbledown quarter full of Africans in colourful national dress carrying pineapples and kids, I came upon a large school and three tall signs in front of it which stopped me in my tracks. One said (I noted the French in my sketchbook and translate it here):

"Michelet School, tragic place of memory. In this school, made into a prison by the German army, hundreds of Jews including numerous children were interned in 1942 - their destination thus: Michelet - Drancy - Auschwitz. From 1941 to 1944, members of the Resistance, Jews, men, women and children - children like us - were rounded up, arrested, the majority on the line of demarcation. WE WILL NEVER FORGET THEM. Students of the history workshop of Michelet School, Sept 2007."

The second sign was a long list of children's names with 'age in 1942' beside each. Surnames were German, Polish, Cohen and Levy, first names French. Ages ranged from 18 to 2.

Third: a big street map of Tours in 1942. Marked on it were three prisons, one: this school; on top of the Palais de Justice (a huge building dominating the city, still there) was written: "Feld Kommandantur"; and near where I was standing now: "Gestapo".

A hot day turned cold. I stopped and instantly sketched the scene with the three signs - rising high and unnoticed above the heads of the Africans going to and fro - and copied out the list of names and ages, as a kind of homage, having left my camera in England.

Then, as the 1942 map showed a synagogue nearby, I went to look for it.

Hidden behind a wall with no sign or symbol outside, squeezed within a row of old terraced houses, it was still there. I saw 37 on the gate, having noticed that in 1942 it was at that number, and asked an old man locking the front door and about to leave if this was the synagogue. He was small, wiry, wizened, and spoke French to me. With him were two thin young men who said not a word. They looked identical, like twins, dressed in black suits and black hair and black beards with porcelain white pale faces that seemed never to have seen sun or even daylight. From Kazakhstan or some such? They can't be Israeli I thought. The old man said they were two rabbinical students sent from Paris for the weekend to give the "rabbin a vacance".

When I asked them questions the old man replied for them. They didn't look at me, casting their eyes down. He said they were at a Jewish theological college in Paris. The service was at 8.30pm tonight.

What a strange experience. I arrived early, soon after 8pm. The door was open but there was no congregation, only the two students and the same old man, all of whom vanished. In the sultry heat there was a droning sound of bees. It was the young men, praying together in a side room in toneless high voices.

While waiting for the start, alone in the narrow dark entrance corridor, I copied out a poignant archive letter framed on the wall about the occupying German forces' treatment of Jews there, written at the time. It was on crumpled fading yellowed paper, typed on a wonky pre-war machine.

8.30pm came - no minyan, still just the four of us - so no service: they said we'd pray individually inside. I glimpsed the hall or main room as we moved towards it from the corridor, but "no! women go upstairs". One of them led me up to a balcony where I sat in solitary splendour.

Through a wrought iron grill I could almost see three tops of heads below. Sketching the ceiling and high windows and then, over the next two hours, the grill, I noted 'they're not visible but their droning and high pitched squeaking can be heard. They are praying privately, not together or taking turns. Unmusical. Random. A jumble of sound. A cacophony.'

Downstairs afterwards the young men spoke. They are brothers. The older is a rabbinic student, the younger has just done his Bac and will follow suit. What led them to this? Unsmiling shrugs from both. A guess: is your father a rabbi? Yes. The Tours congregation, said the old man, has a rabbi but few members. He is the caretaker; he locks and unlocks an empty building each week. The December 1942 archive letter was moving and deserves to be shared. Here's my translation:

"Report of the President of the Israelite Community of Tours. To the President of the Central Consistory of Israelites of France, in Paris.1942.

1. Community.

From the start of the hitlerien regime, numbers of Jews fleeing persecution have found refuge in Tours and in the department around it. In 1939 at the start of the war their number was increased by the evacuation of numerous communities in eastern France. When the Germans in 1940 occupied Tours, many Jews who had fled to the south did not regain the town or the part of the department which the [1940] armistice had placed in the occupied zone. The racial persecutions began with the obligatory census of Jews - the official lists - which had to be given to the Prefecture. The number of Jews was 1,274 persons. The community today has 130 members.

2. Synagogue.

From the moment of their arrival in Tours, the Germans occupied the synagogue and the rabbi's house next to it. From the start of the year 1942 Monsieur Benjamin Aaron, President of the Community, had been able to obtain authorisation to visit. At the end of this same year Monsieur Aaron was arrested by the Gestapo and interned at Drancy where he died. M.Georges Levy, acting Secretary of the Association, accompanied M.Aaron. He describes the state of the Temple at the moment thus: 'The inside of the Temple has been entirely ransacked (saccage).The benches and stalls were broken and have been thrown in a yard behind the building. The Torahs, Shofars, prayerbooks, Thaleths were thrown on the floor, ripped up, soiled and trampled on (lacere, souilles et pietines).The pieces of silver which adorned the Torahs and the curtains with embroidery have disappeared, likewise the harmonium and the gas radiators. In the corners and along the walls is debris of potato peel bearing witness that the Germans used the Temple as rubbish tip for rotten vegetables.'

3. Rabbi's house [smashed up, looted, the Germans stole the radiators again: no time to copy details]

4.Soon after this visit the arrests and the deportations began. At the end of 1942, there are practically no more Israelites in Tours or in the part of the department occupied by the Germans. Either they are victims of the Gestapo, or they have fled."

"Michelet School's history workshop and Jews here in the war? I know nothing about that" said the young woman in the town's university bookshop where I hoped for a book on all this. She said she was a history graduate, born and educated in Tours, but knew nil. No they hadn't done world war 2 in school or university history. (This made me think better of our English school syllabuses.)

In a history of the region I saw that Vikings sailed up the river Loire in the 9th century to ransack and loot the churches and steal their silver and gold treasure, especially at Tours. Plus ca change! The following week there was a local news story about Gypsies being expelled from an encampment and forced to move. On French radio I heard a debate between a man defending them, saying they were born in France and French citizens, and a woman politician saying the nomades were foreigners and should be expelled from France itself. I did get a book, just out, about both Jews and Gypsies under the German Occupation during the war. That is another story.


Ne've Shalom
Great Gutter Lane
HU10 6DP



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